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I've asked about the translation philosophy of the long title in Isaiah 9. This question drills down into one of the phrases: El-Gibbor. According to Wikipedia, there are two basic options:

The meaning of Pele-joez-el-gibbor-abi-ad-sar-shalom is variously interpreted as:

  1. "Wonderful in counsel is God the mighty, the Everlasting Father, the Ruler of Peace" (Hertz 1968), or

  2. "his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace" (KJV).

(I've reformatted the quote slightly in order to make the options more clear.)

Under option 1, the phrase is a general statement about God. A parallel name would be Eleazar ("God has helped"), Joel (which combines the general word for god with the covenant name), or Israel. In other words, the name applies to God, but is used by a person as a statement of truth.

Option 2, at least in English, strongly suggests that the child that gets the name is God. In this case, the name would be on the same list as El Shaddai.

If we take away doctrinal preconceptions, is there any way to how the name would have been understood by its earliest Israelite audience? Are there grammatical or contextual clues that will point us in the right direction?

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v6: That government be increased ... - A biblical exhortation that Republicans would resist vehemently. –  Blessed Geek Dec 21 '12 at 23:13
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3 Answers 3

Immediate Context

The prophecy in Isaiah 9 seems primarily concerned with the survival of the throne of David in the kingdom of Judah (verse 9.7,21) under the threat of Syria and Israel (9.9,11-12,21). This fits the historic context of the eighth century BC, as well as the context of the immediately preceding chapters, Isaiah 7-8, which is concerned with Judah in relation to the kingdoms of Israel, Syria, and Assyria.

Prophetic Naming

Broadening our context from Isaiah 9 over to chapters 7 and 8, we find three examples of children being named according to their respective occasions. If we broaden our context to Isaiah's contemporaries, we find another prophet also giving names to children in Hosea 1.

  • She'ar-yashub = 'A remnant will return' (Isaiah 7.3), but no context is given
  • 'Immanu-'el = 'God is with us' (Isaiah 7.14), as a sign that God will protect King Ahaz's kingdom from Syria and Israel by sending Assyria
  • Maher-shalal-hash-baz = 'Quick to the spoils, swift to the plunder' (Isaiah 8.3), descriptive of Assyria's conquest of Syria and Israel
  • Yizre'e'l = named for valley of Jezreel (Hosea 1.4), descriptive of God's divine vengeance upon 'the house of Jehu', apparently for killing Joram in the valley of Jezreel (e.g. 2 Kings 9.14-29)
  • Lo-ruchamah = 'not pitied' (Hosea 1.6), descriptive of God's lack of pity for Israel in its time of punishment
  • Lo-'ammiy = 'not my people' (Hosea 1.9), descriptive of God's disowning of Israel

The name is not intended to describe the child. Rather, the names describe the prophetic context to which each child was born. It seems probable that Pele'-yo'ez-'el-gibbor-'abiy'ar-sar-shalom, if it is indeed a prophetic name is not meant to describe the child, but the situation to which that child is born (established in Isaiah 7-8): that God would preserve the throne of David in the kingdom of Judah through the threat of Israel, Syria, and Assyria.

The Zeal

This seems verified by the phrase found in the next verse, 9.7: 'The zeal of YHWH of hosts will do this'.

While Isaiah did not, of course, write the historical appendix found in Isaiah 36-39 (= 2 Kings 18.13-20.19), these chapters are part of the final form of the book, and shed light on how Isaiah 9.6-7 was understood in the sixth century BC by the book's editors.

That particular phrase, 'The zeal of YHWH of hosts will do this', is not found anywhere else in the Hebrew scriptures, nor the New Testament... except for Isaiah 37.32 (= 2 Kings 19.31), where it is found in a historical context immediately relevant to Isaiah 7-8: Judah is under threat by Assyria, after Assyria had just conquered Syria and Israel (2 Kings 16.1-18.12, which is just prior to the section that has been copied from 2 Kings into the book of Isaiah).

Who the Name Refers To

Given all of the above, it seems most likely that the prophetic name Pele'-yo'ez-'el-gibbor-'abiy'ar-sar-shalom refers to King Hezekiah, and describes what God would do for Judah through that king's reign.

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Option 1 is almost certainly what Isaiah meant

El-Gibbor strongly parallels names like Ishmael ("God has hearkened") and Elizabeth ("God's promise"). According to a footnote in the NET Bible:

גִּבּוֹר (gibbor) is probably an attributive adjective (“mighty God”), though one might translate “God is a warrior” or “God is mighty.” Scholars have interpreted this title is two ways. A number of them have argued that the title portrays the king as God’s representative on the battlefield, whom God empowers in a supernatural way (see J. H. Hayes and S. A. Irvine, Isaiah, 181-82). They contend that this sense seems more likely in the original context of the prophecy. They would suggest that having read the NT, we might in retrospect interpret this title as indicating the coming king’s deity, but it is unlikely that Isaiah or his audience would have understood the title in such a bold way. Ps 45:6 addresses the Davidic king as “God” because he ruled and fought as God’s representative on earth. Ancient Near Eastern art and literature picture gods training kings for battle, bestowing special weapons, and intervening in battle. According to Egyptian propaganda, the Hittites described Rameses II as follows: “No man is he who is among us, It is Seth great-of-strength, Baal in person; Not deeds of man are these his doings, They are of one who is unique” (See Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, 2:67). According to proponents of this view, Isa 9:6 probably envisions a similar kind of response when friends and foes alike look at the Davidic king in full battle regalia. When the king’s enemies oppose him on the battlefield, they are, as it were, fighting against God himself.

Given the context of the passage, which envisions a future kingdom ruled by a descendant of David who will defeat Israel's enemies and establish lasting peace, it makes sense that God's instrument will bear a name honoring God's military power. The other names also seem to refer to God and are born by the coming king as a reminder that: "The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this." (Isaiah 9:7b ESV)

Option 2 works, but is unlikely

The NET Bible footnote continues:

The other option is to regard this title as a reference to God, confronting Isaiah’s readers with the divinity of this promised “child.” The use of this same title that clearly refers to God in a later passage (Isa 10:21) supports this interpretation. Other passages depict Yahweh as the great God and great warrior (Deut 10:17; Jer. 32:18). Although this connection of a child who is born with deity is unparalleled in any earlier biblical texts, Isaiah’s use of this title to make this connection represents Isaiah’s attempt (at God’s behest) to advance Israel in their understanding of the ideal Davidic king for whom they long.

It would seem that nothing grammatically excludes the interpretation of the name referring to God, since it's used in Isaiah 10. But the suggestion that Isaiah is expanding "their understanding of the ideal Davidic king" is out of step with the culture he is writing from. More damaging is that the next title, "Eternal Father", makes little sense in the Trinitarian framework since it refers to the Son specifically here. (The NET Bible note on that phrase is helpful too.)

For those scholars who are committed to a Christian view, the phrase can be applied to both to the Davidic king of Isaiah's age and also to Jesus Himself. This would be an example of double fulfillment. But this interpretation must be limited to those who already accept the framework of Christian theology. In isolation, Isaiah does not support this interpretation.

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Asked and answered? But your answer doesn't make sense to me. It plainly says "his name shall be called". Called what? Option one doesn't make sense in that context. It isn't some doxology on the attributes of God, it is given as the name. You could arguably split it as "His name shall be called Wonderful counselor. God is mighty, the everlasting father, the prince of peace." But something is the name, either the whole or the part. I suppose that you could make the argument that his name shall be called." using the intransitive form of qara, but that seems dubious to me too. –  Fraser Orr Dec 21 '12 at 17:42
    
@Fraser Orr: The nice thing about the site is that there's always room from another answer. You might notice that my answer relies almost completely on the NET Bible notes, which do suggest a reading that would limit the name to "Wonderful Counselor" and make the other parts of the title refer to God Himself. The grammar behind "his name shall be called" seems like it would be another good question for the site. This is the second comment on the construction I've heard from someone who knows more Hebrew than me. –  Jon Ericson Dec 22 '12 at 5:29
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The only substantive clue may appear to be in verse 7, where a reference is made that this person will receive the throne of David, and will uphold justice and righteousness "forevermore."

In other words, the Israelites who first read this would have had to understand this person to be the Son of David, who was the "Anointed One" of Psalm 2. This reference to eternality (whether figurative or literal) is still a clear reference to 2 Sam 7:13 and 2 Sam 7:16 (Davidic Covenant), where the son of David will sit on the throne of David "forever."

The eternality of this person's rule seems more literal since the phrase "eternal father" occurs, which should be better translated as "father of eternity." So he seems to have the attribute of Yahweh (whose name means eternality). More enigmatic is that the passage allows for the reading that he is "Mighty God."

In summary, without any doctrinal influence of the New Testament, a reader of the Hebrew Bible would have to associate the central person in this passage with the divinely anointed and empowered Son of David, who will save the northern tribes of Israel from the Gentile nations.

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